By Charlotte Parker
Sometimes a mundane task can teach you a lot.
Two weeks ago, I had the chance to staff the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR), which is a 3-day summit for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), NGOs, and member states to discuss ongoing procedural matters and crisis interventions relating to the resettlement of refugees from a transient location, like a refugee camp, to a more permanent home.
The war in Syria has created a widespread crisis situation. That’s clear from the news, however you read, watch, see, or hear it. UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Red Cross/Red Crescent, and countless other intergovernmental, state, and non-state groups have made huge efforts to stem the effects of that crisis on Syrians who are seeking refuge abroad and on refugees from other countries who are currently living in Syria.
But an office in Geneva sometimes feels so far away from the work it manages. You can take a lunch break and go home to your clean, safe apartment for dinner. Even this conference, buzzing with people who have made humane resettlement policies their life’s work in the field and at headquarters, who know the early morning sounds of Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp and the worries of a Myanmar family waiting in Thailand, sometimes felt a bit too abstract.
If you had asked me the day before, I would have put assembling a photo exhibit under the same category of work—disconnected from the pressing issues, kind of like having to hand out name tags to every conference delegate. But assembling a photo exhibit this time around was important.
Paola, a Brazilian photographer, and Anna Karin, a UNHCR staffer, were in Geneva from Damascus [in a rush of unprofessional forgetfulness, perhaps also because my job was to set up chairs and hand out nametags, not interview people, I didn’t get their last names; Paola, if you read this and would like your full name up please contact me!]. I joined them as they rushed to put up the photos Paola had taken. The exhibit, installed just for the ATCR, was called “Waiting,” and consisted of 12 large-scale photographs of refugees (mostly Iraqi, Afghan, and Palestinian) currently living in Syria. Paola chose them because they had been accepted for resettlement to a new country, but were still waiting, as the war intensifies, for an official placement that will let them leave.
As we adjusted the hooks that held the photos, Paola narrated the story of each man, woman, child, or family she had captured on film. An Iraqi woman who fled her country when she found her family shot dead at the dining room table; a gay Muslim man; an Iraqi girl who had been able to find training and then work as a beautician in Syria before the war; a Sudanese man with his son and the memory of his murdered daughter. The threads: hope, loss, and fear. Many refugees who escaped the traumas of wartime lives are re-experiencing those same traumas as Syria disintegrates.
Paola and Anna Karin were quite casual about working in Damascus, but those stories fleshed out the shape of the crisis. So did elements of the exhibition’s assembly. On one descriptive tag, the text was off. “Uff, we had such trouble printing these,” Paola said. Embargoes on Syria meant that she had had to send the text to Lebanon to be printed. Other boards had wrinkled corners because shipping was too complicated and Anna Karin had brought them in her luggage to Geneva.
I was so struck by their passion, their dedication, and above all how connected they were to the crisis. We finally finished setting up just as the NGO delegates were coming out of a meeting. I saw Paola later, in the afternoon, happy. Natural light had come through the room’s skylights, illuminating the second layers of photos Paola had positioned under the portrait of each resettlement case. These were of elements of the refugees’ stories: a teddy bear, religious text, makeup.
“The photos can speak for themselves, but I wanted to have layers to give layers of meaning,” she said, showing me the gay man’s lucky shells. “It preserves the people’s dignity. They’re not one-dimensional, not just refugees.”
If you’re interested in more information, UNHCR’s website has a good media section. Most recently, here’s an update on Iraqi refugees stuck in or fleeing from Syria.
Charlotte Parker ’13 is in Berkeley College. She is an intern for the summer at the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.